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ABCs of South Africa

Learn more about the country's key winegrowing regions, signature varieties and the rules governing what appears on wine labels

James Molesworth
Posted: June 4, 2010

South Africa's vineyards, which spread out from the regional center of Cape Town, total more than 250,000 acres. That total has increased 20 percent since 1994, and the country now ranks as the ninth largest producer of wine in the world.

In addition to new plantings, South African wineries have also uprooted a large percentage of their existing vineyards in order to plant newer, higher-quality vine material and more internationally favored varieties. As a result, more than half of the Cape's vineyards are now just 10 years old or younger.

Among red varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted, followed by Syrah (also known here as Shiraz), Merlot and Pinotage. The last of these, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, has largely been abandoned as South Africa's signature variey, though its total acreage remains high. Today the grape is used primarily for large volume, inexpensive bottlings destined for the European market.

Among the white varieties, Chenin Blanc (sometimes called Steen) remains the most widely planted. It has a long history of use in jug wines, though more and more serious bottlings continue to emerge. Chenin is followed by plantings of the blue-chip Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, which are on the rise.

South Africa's strictly legislated Wine of Origin system has been in place since 1973. The system, overseen by the government-run Wine and Spirit Board, defines distinct areas of wine production beginning with the broad designation of "region," followed by "district" and then "ward." Currently, South Africa's wine production areas are divided into five regions, which are subdivided into 22 districts and 56 wards.

Wine bearing the name of a region, district or ward must contain grapes from that area only. Wine bearing a vintage must be made at least 85 percent from grapes of that vintage. A wine whose label bears the name of a variety must contain at least 85 percent that variety. In addition, the Wine and Spirit Board conducts regular inspections of wineries; those that do not adhere to industry regulations are not granted exportation rights.

As a winegrowing region, the Cape is unique. Two oceans—the Atlantic and the Indian—influence its weather. In addition, the Cape's mountainous topography and myriad soil types allow for numerous microclimates, warm ones and cool ones, which result in a wide range of wines and wine styles.

Some of the Cape's top districts are presented in this map. Stellenbosch and Paarl remain the qualitative leaders, and each district accounts for about 17 percent of the Cape's total vineyards, with Stellenbosch the cooler area of the two. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay perform well in both districts. The Walker Bay region, which lies southeast of Cape Town and surrounds the town of Hermanus, features a very cool climate where Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling excel.

Emerging districts such as Cape Point and Cape Agulhas feature coastal climates similar to that of Walker Bay, and their bright, crisp minerally whites are rapidly growing in number. Farther inland, warmer spots such as the Tulbagh and Swartland districts are showing tantalizing results from Syrah and other Rhône varieties such as Cinsault.

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